Ankle Mobility – Move Better, Feel Better, Perform Better
You never really hear about people working on the mobility of their ankles.
Heck no one even really seems to talk about their ankles unless their ankles are injured.
But our ankles, and our feet for that matter, play a huge role not only in our ability to move, but also in our ability to move well.
You may not realize it, but some of your injuries may be caused by your lack of ankle mobility. Ankle mobility can restrict movement and lead to compensations. If you have poor ankle mobility, you may not be engaging your posterior chain…aka your glutes and such. So when you do leg movements your quads may have to compensate, which can lead to knee problems, among other issues, AND can hinder your progress during your workouts.
Our feet and ankles are our base, and if something isn’t right at our base, how can we expect everything up the kinetic chain to perform well?
If the foundation of your house wasn’t solid, would you really expect the rest of the building to hold up well?
Of course not!
So how can you expect to perform well if your base isn’t solid?!?
So here are 10 great ways to improve your ankle mobility and foot and ankle strength so that you can squat better, run better, and suffer from fewer pains and injuries!
1. Foot foam rolling – A great way to roll out your foot and increase your foot and ankle mobility is using a tennis ball. Standing, put the tennis ball under the arch of your foot. Press down into the ball and roll up and down and side to side. You can also use a lacrosse ball or golf ball. The smaller and harder the ball, the more you will be able to dig in.
2. Lower Leg foam rolling – There are a number of different ways to roll out your calves and your shins. I show a few on Redefining Strength. You have to make sure to roll out your entire lower leg. Most people will do the calves but forget about the shins and even the side of their lower leg. You must hit your lower leg from every angle if you want great mobility. Using a roller, you can hit every part of your lower leg. To get the calf, sit over the roller with it right above your heel. Rock side to side and up and down as you move the roller toward the back of your knee. To hit your shin, kneel on top of the roller almost as if you were going to hold the pigeon pose. Do not foam roll the bone. By rocking to the side after hitting the front of your shin, you can get the outside of your lower leg.
3. Standing 3-way ankle mobility – One of the ankle mobility drills I use most often is a standing three-way drill. This drills is great and hits the ankle from different angles; HOWEVER, if you have knee problems, this move may not be for you. Number 7 may be a better fit if you are suffering from knee pain. To do this mobility move, standing facing a wall. You can put your hands on the wall for balance or support. Have one foot in front. This foot is the one working. Try to drive the knee straight forward over the toe and into the wall. Do not let the heel of the foot come up. Do that 10 times and then take a step out a bit wider and repeat. Then step across in front and repeat 10 more times. Make sure that your toe is always pointing directly toward the wall and that you are keeping the heel down as you drive your knee forward.
4. Bear Squat – The Bear Squat is one of my favorite ankle mobility moves because it is a great calf stretch and even gets my hamstrings sometimes. To do this move, start on your hands and knees as if you were about to crawl. Then drive up off your knees onto your toes and hands. Drive your heels as close to the ground as possible and then return back to kneeling. You can make this an even better warm up by not returning all the way back to kneeling but instead just to the bulldog position!
5. Single Leg calf and ankle stretch – Very similar to the Bear Squat although this really targets one ankle and calf at a time. Start in a plank like at the top of a push up. Cross one ankle over the other calf. Then pushing your butt up in the air, drive the heel of the foot down into the ground. Then move back toward the plank position and repeat about 10-15 times each side. Do not hold the stretch.
6. Kneeling foot stretch – (can be combined with bear squat) – I like to combine this one with the Bear Squat, but it does take a bit more mobility especially in the quads. To perform this move, kneel on the ground. Flex your feet with your toes tucked under and then sit back on your heels. If you combine this with the Bear Squat, you will sit back on your heels then move into a crawling position before pressing your hips up and your heels into the ground. Then return back to the kneeling position.
7. Elevated Toe Standing Dorsiflexion (foot “flexed”)- This is a great one for anyone with knee issues. Elevate your toes on books or plate weights or anything that is an inch or two higher than the ground. Place your toes up on the book and your heel on the ground. Then “squat” down a bit keeping your heels on the ground. You may sort of go forward instead of truly squatting down when doing this move. Just make sure to keep your heel on the ground. This move creates ankle dorsiflexion without you having to let the knee go over the toe.
8. Toe circles – This is a great move that you can do a variety of ways. You can sit, or even lie, on the ground and make circles with your toes. Make circles both clock-wise and counter clock-wise. You can also do this standing. Point your back foot with your big toe on the ground and the top of your foot facing the ground. Draw circles keeping your big toe in one spot.
9. ABCs – This one is a great rehab/prehab one to do right when you wake up or even right before you go to bend. Straighten one leg toward the ceiling while you are lying down. Draw the letters of the alphabet with your big toe.
10. Single Leg Balance with Swings– Working on your balance is key to having great ankle strength and mobility. You can stand and balance on one leg. You can balance on your toes. You can balance on a foam pad. Or you can even balance on an incline on your toes. Whichever way you choose to do, balancing is beneficial. One of my favorite balance moves because it also really warms up the knees and hips, is a single leg balance with leg swings. Stand on one foot and swing the other leg forward and backward. Make the swings bigger as you go. Then swing the same leg side to side, making the swings bigger as you go. Finally, do a rotational swing. Bend your knee to 90 degrees and rotate the leg open and close as if it were almost a door on a hinge.
All the moves above are great for ankle mobility, but you don’t need to do all of them every day or even every time you do a sprint or leg workout. Choose a couple to use when you warm up. And if you have suffered any ankle injuries, make sure to stay consistent with your prehab/rehab so that you restore your ankle to full mobility!
Accepting Pain aka STUPIDITY
So there are all sorts of “pain” related discussions that really get on my nerves.
One is when clients who are working hard for the first time in their life tell you that an exercise “hurts” when, upon further investigation, you find out that it is merely making their muscles fatigued and that they aren’t used to the burning sensation of a muscle working.
While I don’t like the phrase “no pain, no gain,” being sore and working hard isn’t always “comfortable.”
But at the same time having the attitude “no pain, no gain” and never recognizing when something hurts isn’t good either.
While I can get annoyed when someone can’t recognize the difference between “injury pain” and “discomfort from muscles working hard,” I get way more annoyed by the client who thinks they are cool because they push through the pain.
And honestly this “no pain, no gain” client WAY worse than the client that mistakes muscles working for pain.
You may be shaking your head and going, “Heck no! They aren’t near the same! You have to work through the pain sometimes! You are TOUGH if you just push through!”
Uhm no…I’m sorry….You don’t…and you aren’t.
You are stupid.
Yep that’s right…STUPID.
I can say this as someone who has been stupid one too many times in her past. I have the torn muscles and scar tissue to prove it.
And guess what I have now?
Improperly rehabbed injuries that years later I’m now having to deal with.
Trust me…injuries aren’t cool.
You aren’t “bad-ass” if you push through.
Honestly, unless you are a highly paid athlete, there is never a reason to push through true pain and injury. And even if you are a highly paid athlete, there is a very fine line between stupid and something you push through because it is your job.
When you work through the pain, generally all you do is make the injury worse. And then you are either eventually going to have to take time off, and probably MORE time than if you had rested and rehabbed it immediately, OR you are going to have something that restricts your movement and causes pain for the rest of your life.
Doesn’t sound like great options if you don’t just DEAL with the pain immediately.
But rehab and pre-hab aren’t “cool.”
It is way cooler to be like, “I can’t do push ups because of my shoulder.”…Right!?!
I can’t tell you how many people recently I’ve encountered coming from other gyms who say they “can’t do” something because of an injury they’ve never dealt with and just “worked through.”
And every time I say to them the same thing, “Well what have you been doing for rehab?”
And I always get the same answer…NOTHING.
Can someone please explain this to me?
Why is pain cool and rehab not cool?
Don’t we workout to feel BETTER!?! Don’t we go to look BETTER? Perform BETTER?
If we want exercise to make us BETTER, how do we expect to do that if we are restricted and in PAIN?!
If you have an ankle injury, even one from decades ago, and you never rehabbed it, it may be causing problems up your leg. It may be why you have low back and hip pain. It may be why you have balance issues. It may be why you can’t lift as much as you want to. It may be why your butt isn’t as strong and perky as you would like!
It may be causing a whole load of problems that aren’t even related to the initial injury!
But it is better to just push through…huh?
Ok here is your chance to stop being an idiot and stop accepting pain.
Take five minutes at the beginning of your workout and add in an exercise or two to rehab or better yet “pre-hab” any weak points or areas of past injury. (Just because at one point in your life you did some rehab for an injury doesn’t mean you are just now done with it now. That area may always need some extra TLC.)
Here are a couple quick things you can do for four common areas of injuries…
- ANKLE/FOOT PAIN/INJURY (Heck these are even good for some knee and hip problems) – Roll out the bottom of your foot, your shin and your calf with a roller or small ball. Then work on your balance. My favorite balancing drill is when you either stand on one foot on the ground or on a foam pad and then you swing the other leg. Do swings forwards and backwards, side to side and even rotational (like you are lifting your foot to step back over a fence and then bringing it back forward over the fence without touching down). Then do glute activation drills. Pick one or two from this list and do 1-2 rounds of 10-20 reps.
- LOW BACK/HIP PAIN/INJURY – Low back pain is a super common problem. While rolling out the whole leg is ideal to find all trigger points, you can start with your hips, glutes and low back. A great way to roll out your hips, can be to take a bigger, foam ball and lay over it. The ball will actually be pressing into your abs right above your hip and beside your belly button. Relax over the ball as much as you can. You will also want to stretch your glutes and hips. Here are some more great trigger point release tips for your hip area. You will also probably want to do some stretches and trigger point release for your thoracic spine and lats. We can sometimes compensate and use our low back because our thoracic mobility is bad. A great thoracic stretch is one you do when kneeling. Kneel on the ground with one hand planted on the ground under the shoulder. Then reach your other hand back over your head with your finger tips pointing down your spine. Then rotate your elbow of the hand down your spine, under your arm that is down. Then rotate open, reaching the elbow up toward the ceiling. Again, glute activation exercises are key. If our glutes aren’t firing, we are going to use our low back and hamstrings more than we should!
- WRIST/ELBOW PAIN/INJURY – Yup…you can even roll out your forearms. If you have wrist or elbow pain, rolling our your forearms, triceps and biceps can help, especially if you target the areas of insertion. Wrist/forearms stretches are also important. We sit at computers all day with our wrists flexed and never really think to do anything to extend and release the muscles. One of my favorite wrist stretches is, when I kneel down and place my hands on the ground under my shoulders. I then turn my finger tips to face my knees with my palms flat on the ground. I then rock back and sit on my heels, keeping my palms flat on the ground, and then return back to kneeling and release. To also help activate the extensors of my wrist and forearm, I use a trick I was taught by Corey…The rubber band extension. Take a rubber band and place it around the outside of your fingers when they are all together. Then spread your fingers out as wide apart as you can before bringing them back together. This really helps with a lot of elbow pain!
- SHOULDER/UPPER BACK/NECK PAIN/INJURY – Roll out your traps, chest and lats. You will also want to stretch your chest and neck. You can easily stretch your chest using a wall or doorway. Place your hand and even your forearm on the wall or door frame and then step forward till you feel a stretch. To stretch your neck, lean your head to one side and gentle pull your head down toward your shoulder, making sure you keep your shoulders relaxed. To change exactly which muscles you hit, look up, down and straight ahead. Then you will want to do a scapular wall hold. If you do it correctly, you will activate your lower traps which will help you relax your upper traps and usually helps with neck pain. YTWLs are great too to activate the muscles in your upper back and strengthen your rotator cuff. Check out this video by Nick Tumminello on how to do them.
Here is another article with some essential mobility drills that can help you move better!
You don’t have to do these every day, but you do want to make sure that spots that need improvement get attention! So stop accepting pain and start doing something about it. It really doesn’t take that much time.
Be smart…It’s way more “bad-ass!”
NOTE: If you are suffering from an injury, it is best to get checked out by a doctor. Most of these drills are meant for already diagnosed injuries or minor recurring injuries/pains. Also, this list is by no means comprehensive. It is just to give you an idea that there are some quick things you can do before your workouts, to correct problems!